Forever Rome

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Chapter 9

A determined Gaius makes his way through the city’s underbelly. The denizens of theses parts keep to themselves whether out of fear of being arrested or too out of it to bother otherwise. It did not matter. He has an air about him of a man not to be messed around with. Not getting very far on foot, he needs to leave the city.

The Metro System runs round the clock, but there are surveillance drones, tiny little hovering monitors, everywhere. When they were implemented, there was an outcry. Privacy would go out the window and at first, that was true. People’s private actions were caught and replayed all over the internet. But with their sensor inhibitors, they are relegated to open areas and overseen by the government. An imperial license is required to purchase one of the surveillance units. They do what they were designed for: maintain order and prevent crime.

He needs to steer clear of any public facility or he’ll be detected. His options are limited and he’s desperate. By chance, a patrol hover car appears, coming up the street on a routine beat, its searchlights watching for any signs of illegal activity. Gaius knows a rookie is behind the wheel as seasoned cops are promoted out of this environment. The streets are a place to get your feet wet. A plan forms in Gaius’s head as he glances down at his uniform. Maybe by some miracle, this kid wouldn’t have a readout on him yet. So he steps out from the shadows and waves his hands in the air to grab the rookie cop’s attention. He runs forwards acting wild and scared. The cars beams almost catch him. A nervous voice blares from the car’s speaker system.

“Halt! Do not move!”

Sweating, Gaius puts on the pleading face of a victim and cries out. The police car slows coming to a full stop and lowering to the street. The door swings up. A policeman gets out, his pulse gun at the ready. A standard issue firearm, the pulse gun can switch from stun to live sounds with the flip of a thumb lever. At the policeman’s side is the ever-present sword, a callback to ancient traditions. Romans do not give up traditions, and the Gladius was the sidearm of ancient times. It is more for show now, but as bullets run low, it is reliable for both defense and offence. Swordsmanship is mandatory training for all public safety personnel and the military alike. Most all citizens learn to use them and swords are a prized position. Some are handed down to each generation going back thousands of years. The officer approaches calling out again.

“Get down on the ground!”

Gaius has no intention of doing so he plays the frantic victim well.

“These guys jumped me and took my car! I was leaving the hospital and they were hiding in the parking deck. Can you help me?!” pleads Gaius.

The policeman’s face is wary. He is trained to expect trouble where there should not be any. Nobody, not even a security guard, is above suspicion. He inches closer, still unsure about what to make of Gaius. Gaius puts on a great act, breathing heavy as if he is having a panic attack.

The officer is only feet away now and Gaius seizes the opportunity. In an instant he is on the man grabbing his gun. The cop unsheathes his sword out of impulse but the blade is no match against the firearm. The rookie closes his eyes as Gaius flips the thumb lever down on the gun and shoots a stun bullet, knocking him out.

The rookie left the car running and the door open. All cruisers are coded with an individual’s retina imprint. At each shift change, the hover cars are reprogrammed for the next driver. The rearview mirror scans their right eye, locking down the vehicle so that only the person assigned to it can drive it and prevent what Gaius is attempting. The unconscious rookie made a mistake by leaving it on. All Gaius has to do is to jump in and zip way. He flies up into the glide paths of other vehicles. He heads away from the city, into the suburban areas.

The sky glows the blue of predawn.The traffic is light as Gaius winds through the buildings, reaching the outskirts of Romanus. Still sweating, he tries to concentrate on what he is doing, the sound of a low hum enters his brain. He winces in pain, his eyes growing wilder. Finding it harder to drive steady, he needs to be careful or he will be caught. He must focus on his destination, his only mission now.

Trajan and the two guards sat in the rear of the van. It rocks back and forth through the wind turbulence. His head is clearing but he’s has been up almost twenty-four hours. Looking out the window, he sees his father’s impressive estate below. “That’s my father’s home,” Trajan says. One of the policemen communicates this to the driver through the ear mic and the craft descends. Stopping outside the front gate, they jump out with Trajan in tow and Sid hovering close by.

They proceed up to the gate monitor and press the call button. A drowsy Clavius answers.

“Yes, who is it?”

“It’s me, Dad. May I come in?” says Trajan.

The security camera swivels, surveying the party of three, Trajan and two policemen. Clavius now sees Trajan’s escort and cuffed hands.

“What is the trouble son?”

“Just a slight altercation. I need your signature to release him,” a policeman says in a friendly tone.

“Hey, wait a minute. I thought I was free to go? You were going to drop me off,” Trajan says.

“Sorry, sir. Protocol whenever a head of state is involved,” he says.

Trajan understands it has been a long night. So what if they want his Father’s autograph? It was of little consequence. The gate retracts and the three men walk up the path to the entrance. There is rustling in the bushes beside them. It’s probably Dad’s cat lurking in the shadows. As they draw closer, the door opens. Trajan’s mother and father stand in their bed togas. Trajan smiles, relieved to be home. Clavius welcomes them with his usual good-natured spirit.

“Morning, friends. I hope my son didn’t cause you any trouble,” he says.

“Oh no, sir. He didn’t but you did,” the policeman replies.

Their demeanor changes as they sling Trajan down to the ground and whip out their weapons. The assassins, armed with silenced pistols, put two bullets into each of his parents. Clavius and Octavia fall to the ground. Trajan screams for them as a guard levels his muzzle at Trajan’s temple.

Gaius jumps from the bushes and tackles them both. Struggling, the man manages to get off a shot, hitting Gaius. He is so high on adrenaline he takes the bullet and without flinching grabs the other assassin’s gun and shoots both them dead.

The strange scent of honey floats on the morning breeze. Gaius falls to his knees, exhausted, and crawls over to Trajan to removes Trajan’s handcuffs before reeling and collapsing. In disbelief and grief, Trajan leans over to his friend. Blood is gurgling from Gaius’s mouth. The bullet has pierced his lung. Trajan cradles Gaius as he tries to speak.

“So sorry, buddy...must get them out...I understand now.” Gaius heaves and breathes his last.

Trajan gently lays Gaius’s head down and runs over to his parents. Checking his mother first, he finds she is dead, staring into oblivion. Clavius is still clinging to life, the old soldier in him refusing to give up. With tender eyes, he looks at his son. “Why, father? Why did this happen?” Trajan asks wanting.

“Go to Mars, son. Find them, destroy them. You’ll know what to do,” Clavius says before slipping away. The breeze picks up and the honey smell dissipates. He sits among the ruins of his life, destroyed in seconds. His Mom, Dad and Gaius, all dear loved ones, are gone forever. He tries to comprehend and make sense of it, but who could after witnessing the slaughter? And what did Gaius’s and Clavius’s dying words mean? Go to Mars and find and destroy something, but who? He can’t stay here that is certain.

The police van is outside the gate. He has to get it before more personnel arrived. Sid is in the rear of it asleep. He remembers his emergency transponder in his wallet, for use when he is incapacitated and in danger. He can switch on the unit remotely. Shaking and upset, he tries to think and remain in control, his years of self-imposed discipline kicking in. With bloody, aching hands, he removes his billfold from his hip pocket and retrieves the card. He swipes his finger across the bar code to activate the drone.

In the van, Sid powers up with the driver sitting in front waiting for his conspirators to return. It rises from the seat and shoots a bolt of energy into the floorboard. The uninsulated man takes the full charge, knocking him out. Then the bot overrides the locks and the door swings open. Trajan runs from the front gate. He reaches and grabs the guard and slings him to the ground. He hears the man’s head crack as it hits the pavement, then removes his weapon. Sid buzzes around to the other side.

“Are you alright, sir?” it asks.

“My parents and Gaius are dead. Quick, disable the lockout on the gun,” says Trajan.

The digital indicator goes to green in his palm. Now armed, he has to get out of there fast. But where does he go? Who can he trust? Perhaps Pompeii? But the hospital is crawling with security. He considers the Emperor and going to the palace, but Marcus will be there. He fully believes his former friend is involved in all this. There is Lucilla, but he’d put her at risk if he calls. The apartment is out of the question, too. That would be the first place they would look.

Professor Aviates. The campus is far enough away that patrols might not have been alerted. It is risky, but it is his only option. With the van still running, he heads out, leaving behind his past life.

Marcus’s stretch limo is like a combination mini hotel room, bar and dance club. The lighting is cool blue and the music soft and romantic. Lucilla seems to be unbothered by the uncomfortable atmosphere in which she finds herself. Marcus plays on her reticence, trying to be debonair and coming on strong. He snuggles her neck, working up to her mouth. Despite the drug, something in her resists.

“Why do you hold back, love?” he asks.

She is hesitant, not comprehending what is happening. Part of her wants to give in. This is not like her at all. What is going on in her brain?

“I, I can’t. I’m sorry,” she says.

Her will is strong, but Marcus up until now, has been hiding his deadly secret. He reaches down into a side panel on the door and produces another perfume bottle. This time, the blue liquid glows and sparkles. He uncaps the top and presses the spray nozzle, releasing a fine mist. The air is scented with the sickly honey aroma. Lucilla breathes it in. It has an immediate effect, and her inhibitions fly out the window. She falls into his arms kissing him all over. This is it what he has always wanted: Lucilla, body and soul. But it’s not real. She is under the influence of the extraterrestrial narcotic, the remnant of the substance that caused the death of a world. That was no matter to him. All that concerns Marcus is this moment with her.

The Imperial grounds and driveway are lit with luminaries creating a beautiful scene in all different colors. The limo glides to the front entrance. Landing, its doors open and Number Two exits followed by Marcus, who reaches in for Lucilla. She steps out into the crisp morning air, shivering in the slight chill. He tries to behave gentlemanly and takes off his coat and covers her shoulders. Appreciative, she glances at the long stairway leading up to the grand doorway. Praetorians stand on every other step armed with automatic weapons, Gladius swords strapped to their sides. Her eyes have an affection for him like that she once held for Trajan. Arm in arm they ascend the stairs into the residence. This is what he has always wanted, Lucilla at his side, a true consort, part of a master plan that is coming together.

The grand hall of the imperial palace is dark in the early morning hours, quiet as a tomb. The only sound is their footfalls and the incessant humming of the servos keeping Number Two hovering.

Marcus is proud as he struts towards his chambers with Lucilla at his side. “A conquest like no other, defeating the man who could do no wrong,” Marcus thinks. What he could not accomplish with his assassination attempt by Gaius he can achieve by turning Trajan into the most hated person in the empire. Even now, Trajan is being framed for killing Clavius and Antonia. He knows his friend well. By goading him on earlier, it will appear he is vengeful, losing control from too much wine. The drug is working better than Marcus hoped. Something he himself, through his own clever underworld dealings, invented: a synthetic narcotic that releases all inhibitions. The effect is similar to alcohol, only the imbiber never comes down. Once in the system, its influence keeps growing, leaving the subject open to suggestion, an attribute which he is using to full effect at this very moment. The unlimited power granted by his tiny experiment are astounding. He could bend a person to his will with only a word. However, there were dangers. Until he could place himself in a position to reap the benefits, he had to get rid of certain individuals. Gaius was the first and now Trajan. There were others who might stand in his way, and his father is first among them.

He knew Domitian was looking to have him disavowed as his heir. If that happened before he was ready, his funds could dry up and that would put a damper on producing Crystal Blue. Dealers like to be paid and were forever busy searching for other sources of revenue. If it was not him who funded the insidious enterprise, it would be somebody else. They would realize the power of this synthetic and use it against him. He needs to proceed with his plan immediately.

Reaching his room, he pauses in a moment of glory, wanting to relish it. He bows as if Lucilla is a royal courtesan. The automatic, ornate gold door swings open allowing them to enter Marcus’s chambers.

He proceeds over to the mantle above the fireplace. Behind the picture of Marcus, Lucilla and Trajan, a small machine is attached to the back of the frame. Marcus swipes his finger over the machine’s reader, an ingenious device that reads only his DNA and enacts orders he has programmed into Domitian’s protection unit, Number One. His eyes light up with malicious glee. The buzzing grows louder and louder. Again he winces even while taking pleasure in what he is about to do.

Inside the Emperor’s room, Octavia stirs in the bed, restless. By her movements, it must be a nightmare. The motion wakes up Domitian, who turns over to check to see what is troubling her. Alerted by the action, Number One comes to her aid.

“Are you alright sir?”

“Yes fine. She is dreaming,” he says.

Jostling her awake, Octavia sits up with a start, scared and wild-eyed. Gasping for air, she realizes that she is in her room and calms down.

“What is the matter, my love?” asks Domitian.

“It was horrible. You were dying, and I was being smothered in honey. The old nightmares...”

“It will be fine. That was ages ago. They can’t hurt us anymore.”

“Are you so sure?”

Domitian looks concerned. It has been so long ago it should have felt nothing but a distant memory, but his experience on Mars remains fresh and horrific. He hears the cries of his men calling out for help, of Clavius, Pompeii and he in combat. The sensation and scent of the honey fills his breath and the buzzing still ring in his ears.

He rises out of bed ready to begin another day, struggling, a little more tired than usual. Stepping into the bathroom and closing the door, he stops and rubs his chest. The visions have started something. His adrenaline is up, causing an old heart to over exert itself. He shouldn’t think of those days; it always excites him and that is not good for his health. The aching and pressure grow ever stronger. Panic grows across his face as he turns red. His left arm throbs. “Number One, quickly!” he cries out.

The drone hovers over to him and a small sliding panel opens on its side and dispenses cardiac medicine. He grabs them with shaking hands, tosses them into his mouth and swallows, but the medicine that Number One has given him has the opposite effect. The drone activates the locks on all the suite entrances, locking it down and isolating the Emperor. The biosensors are also turned off. Domitian calls out for his wife.

Hearing him, she scrambles to the door but cannot open it. Struggling to get in and save her husband, she beats on the door, calling for assistance from anyone who can hear her. The machine has done its job well keeping any help from arriving. Domitian tries to stay on his feet now realizing that he has been poisoned. He issues command override orders to reverse any previous ones, but to no avail. His beating heart gives out and he falls to the bathroom floor, dead. His collapse sets off an emergency klaxon. The device initializes another set of commands and whines louder and louder. On a small screen, it displays a readout with a photograph of Trajan. It is emailing the photograph and a message to the The Imperial Times.

Octavia hears the whine and recognizes the piercing noise. It is the energy module building up to an overload. She runs to an exit but all the doors are secured. The whine drives her to her knees in agony, hands pressed hard over her ears. Number One is heating, then, in a mighty crescendo, explodes, destroying the chamber to and ripping the couple to shreds.

Praetorian guards on their way to the Emperor’s aid are blown off their feet. The entire building is rocked as smoke billows up from the blast.

On the other side of the compound upstairs, Marcus falls out of his bed, wide awake. He runs to the window and tosses back the curtains, revealing the smoldering ruins of the collapsed portion of the imperial palace. The sight of it even takes him by surprise.

He wanted his father incapacitated. If Domitian died, so be it, but not this way, and not along with his mother. Lucilla wakes from deep sleep and for an instant comes out of her drug-induced fugue. Realizing she is nude and Marcus is standing at the window she assumes the worst.

“What did you do? What’s happening and where’s Trajan!?” she screams.

“I do not need to be pummeled by questions right now,” he says. He has to solve Lucilla first to shut her up. Running to the mantle, he gets the bottle of Crystal Blue and sprays it into the air. The mist hits Lucilla and she returns to her docile state. That taken care of, he calls for Number Two.

“Explain!” he says.

“The bio-units Domitian and Octavia have been neutralized per your orders sire.”

“I told you to see my father didn’t get the right medicine to incapacitate him, not my mother! Who told you to blow up the compound!?”

Number Two remains motionless and unsympathetic. The fire crews and rescue units have converged on the palace along with the inevitable news reporters. Helicopters spit foam on the burning wreckage that was once the bedroom of the most powerful man in the world. Marcus for the first time seems confused. He has prepared for ascension to the throne, but he wanted all the perks and none of the responsibilities. Now he is thrust into a situation which he was not expecting. There is a loud banging on the door. It is his sister screaming for him. “Enter!” he says in a distraught tone.

Claudia runs in, cradling one child with the toddler trotting by her side. She glances at the bed and the sleeping, nude figure of Lucilla. She covers the kids’ eyes with tears streaming down her face. Somehow she knows he’s involved in this and slaps him hard.

“What did you do!?”

For all his venom and worthless behavior, Marcus is stumped at what has happened. Trying to maintain an air of calm and resolve without revealing he is still a little drunk and hungover, he calls to the security personnel outside his door. A Centurion runs to his side with his gun and sword, ready for anything.

“Sire, are you injured?”

“No, but what of my mother and father?”

The Centurion shakes his head.

“We only found bits and pieces.”

The description sends Marcus into a fit. The man is a gruff individual. used to the battlefield. Decorum and subtlety are not his style. As a soldier, he explains things as easily as his level of intelligence will allow.

“Not in front of the children you idiot,” barks Marcus.

The Centurion is taken aback; he is only trying to do his job. Claudia understands and thanks him for his loyalty. The remark does not bother him as he is used to much worse inflicted upon his person. However, losing a Caesar on his watch is hard and he is rattled. He has to get the rest of the royal family to safety.

“We must find a secure location!” says the Centurion.

For once he agrees with someone else other than his own ego. He must sort this out and grabs his coat. The guards gather up the others. He eyes the drone, not knowing what to make of it. He issues orders for it to be disabled.

“Shut it down or destroy it! I don’t care which, but I want it out of my sight!” he screams.

Number Two backs up a little not behaving like normal. A warning signal blares as it charges itself. The men realizing it’s charging its pulse cannon take action. They fire first, destroying the machine. It sputters and falls to the floor, a clanking mess, out of commission.

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